It's 8:45 a.m., and 11 Greenpeace activists, loaded with climbing gear and a long, heavy banner have made their way up to the top of Mount Rushmore. So far, security hasn't detected them. Still, they're whispering and keeping to the shadows.
Down at the tourist center, the wind is just starting to pick up, but 500 feet up the mountain, the gusts are already fierce.
None of the climbers has ever been here before. They know the national park has its own climbing team with established rope anchors on the monument. They intend to find those anchors and use them.
"I've never been so nervous in my life," one whispers into the camera.
10 a.m. Go time.
If you've ever wondered what it takes to hang one of those massive Greenpeace banners, the video shows it up close and in detail as the climbers unfurl a 65-by-35-foot banner next to Lincoln's face, with the wind whipping the banner like a giant sail and two climbers being slammed into the rock mountainside as they try to keep it in place.
"America Honors Leaders,
Not Politicians. Stop Global Warming," the banner reads.
Greenpeace planned the July 8 Rushmore action and the take-over of four coal plants in Italy to coincide with the G8 summit, where the world's most-polluting countries were considering a declaration to keep the global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius. In Congress, the U.S. Senate had just started discussing climate legislation, following a serious weakening in the House of the Waxman-Markey climate bill by politicians demanding concessions for their home-state industries.
The Rushmore banner was a message to President Obama that the time to get tough about true climate action and to show leadership on the issue is now.
After about an hour of holding the banner in place, the climbers rappelled to the ground, where sheriff's deputies were waiting. The 11 were arrested and pleaded not guilty to federal misdemeanor charges of trespassing and climbing on Mount Rushmore. Trial is set for October. Each could face up to six months in jail.
Matt Leonard (below right, with banner), a veteran of about a dozen banner hangings and other direct actions with Greenpeace, was holding down the lower right corner of the banner. The 30-year-old activist talked to SolveClimate about the Mount Rushmore action and the message that Greenpeace is trying to send. He's been rock climbing for 10 years and worked in industrial rigging for concerts, but this was by far one of his windiest, toughest climbs.
What was going through your mind up there on the mountain?
We're very well trained, very experienced. Safety is a big deal. This was a new one though. We didn't know what we would face – none of us had ever been to the top of Mount Rushmore before. And you're dealing with carrying a lot of weight and security. We were very vigilant about not damaging anything or creating a situation that would put anyone else in danger.
After you were arrested, what kind of response did you get from people on the ground?
There was a lot of mixed reaction. There was some heckling. We also got a lot of thumbs up from people as we were being escorted out.
Do you think direction actions like the Mount Rushmore banner and the coal-plant takeovers in Italy are making a difference and getting your message across?
When you're in a crisis situation, you're not always going to respond in a calm way. You're going to scream and yell. This is one way to make those concerns known – this is a crisis and people need to treat it like a crisis.
It's important that the public see that people are willing to speak up and put their bodies on the line, and people respect the degree of courageousness.
Like most groups involved in social justice, we don't have the money to buy a full-page ad in The New York Times or a spot on CNN. So with direct actions and social networking, we're certainly getting the message across, and we're putting some pressure on the targets. We'd love to get the phone call from Obama, but ...
If you had President Obama on the phone right now, what would you tell him?
On the campaign trail Obama promised to be a leader on climate and environmental issues, and to restore science to its proper place in our government. So far, he has done neither – he has played it safe with middle grounds, half measures, and political convenience. I would tell Obama that he has both the power, and the responsibility to act boldly on climate change - to be a great leader and not just a politician.
There's also a reality that when he has attempted to be a progressive voice for change, he's hit opposition from industry and conservatives. Actions like this can give him political space – show that there are people behind him demanding that he do what science says must be done to solve climate change.
I think it's a message he's certainly paying attention to, and hopefully one he follows.
Greenpeace's executive director, Phil Radford, was at the G8 meeting in Italy. What kind of reaction did he get to the coal-plant takeovers and Rushmore banner?
I think the tone was shifted at the G8, and I think all these actions played a central role in that. There was a greater tone of accountability from world leaders, the media and civil society. There were stronger demands from participating groups, more of a sense of urgency. That change in discourse is vital as the clock ticks down towards Copenhagen.
Greenpeace puts itself out there like no one else, while other big environmental groups are focused on the political insider's game. Which is more effective?
Every social movement that has had major victories has used strategic civil disobedience and peaceful direct action – and it's a lesson of history that many in the climate movement simply are forgetting.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, "I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it." We don't even have our leaders all agreeing with us – or the worlds best scientists – which is all the more reason we must make them do it by applying stronger pressure, and flexing our movement's muscles.
This is a crisis. We need to stop timidly asking or we risk yet another decade of inaction. We simply can't accept the current political reality – we have to drastically shift that reality in order to ensure we solve the climate crisis.
UPDATE (July 21, 2009): A federal grand jury indicted Greenpeace and the 11 activists today. If convicted, Greenpeace faces fines of up to $10,000 for each of four charges of aiding and abetting and conspiracy to climb Mount Rushmore. Greenpeace is accused of planning the action, training the climbers, some of whom blocked officials from reaching the top of the monument, transporting them to South Dakota, and hiring a helicopter to videotape the action.
(Photos and video courtesy of Greenpeace)